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Business Management

Krishna Gopal (Middle East) - Marshaling the Troops for Middle East Projects

Middle East and Africa have always been difficult regions to get your people to go to. IT professionals in the Western world are spooked by the fundamentalism, the extreme weather and the political/security situation prevailing there. I come from India where an IT professional feels that it is his/her birthright to do projects only in the US or Europe.

When you bring up Middle East with your teams it's always "Oh, but you can't drink alcohol there" or "There are no night clubs". So I have always taken it upon myself to do both internal and external selling when it comes to executing projects in the Middle East. While you are selling to your prospects you have to keep an eye out for the delivery team that will be handling the project and rope in the key stakeholders at the appropriate times to visit the customer, and therefore the region.

Remember that despite low sentiments about growth, the IT industry continues to face shortages in skills, and in a region like the Middle East, opportunities around large application development & maintenance or testing are few and far between. The work is more around package implementation and customization. This means skill levels required are of a higher order, and such people are even more difficult to find and motivate to work for extended periods of time in the region.

When you get people closer to the ground and get them to face up to reality, things don't appear all that bad. For one, the best part about working in the GCC countries (UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia) is that your pay is tax free. Having said that, Saudi is a different animal altogether and it would take quite some amount of convincing and adjustment for an IT professional to agree to work in that country. For people in the know, it is GCC minus Saudi which is the easier part in terms of people deployment.

Even within the GCC-Saudi bloc, the best ones are UAE (read that as Dubai), Bahrain and Oman. These are very Westerner-friendly countries with night clubs, easy access to alcohol, no restrictions on women in terms of working, driving and attire and no religious impositions. Once you get your key delivery folks exposed to these countries and ensure that their allowances let them live well and earn well, you are home and dry as far deploying techies is concerned.

Qatar and Kuwait do present some challenges which are not insurmountable. Night clubs, alcohol etc. are difficult to find and the partying kinds may baulk initially until they figure out the local nuances and techniques. I haven't really faced too many issues for these countries as well. The tax free pay is a killer and there is always the option to fly to Dubai (1 hour) on a weekend for a binge.

Saudi is the most difficult. But having said that, the expat population in that country is huge and people have stayed on for years. As I mentioned, there are always takers at the right price.

Besides the GCC, the Middle East also has Jordan, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan and Yemen. It's a motley set comprising of Levant (Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine) together with Egypt, Sudan and Yemen. The common factor in these countries is that the spoken language is Arabic. Countries like Libya also have Arabic as the language but have never fallen into the Middle East category.

Now, Jordan and Egypt are the best amongst this lot - Syria is a no-no nowadays and Yemen has always been a tense place. Sudan and Palestine have been up and down, on and off.

Besides tax free pay, I have always ensured that people being deployed went through a sensitivity session before they left for the destination. This was something that either I or one of my senior team members personally ran over 60 to 90 minutes. It covered work and personal etiquette, expected office politics, cautionary words on local ethnic issues, 101 on night clubs, restaurants, vegetarian food, laundry, taxi/car hire, serviced apartments etc. I always felt it was better to do this personally as a business owner rather than wait for HR to put it all together. In any case, HR was short on ground reality to be able to pull off such an orientation session with conviction.

It was also important to provide initial hand-holding on the ground to help them get their driving license, work visa, health insurance, open a bank account or find a place to stay. Unless you get the housekeeping factors out of the way, it is not possible to get the person's commitment. Doing all of this has always been quite simple in the GCC countries (minus Saudi of course), and consequently I have not faced major issues in deploying people to these countries on projects.

By Krishna Gopal, Independent Consultant in the Middle East and Africa. Follow him on Twitter @krishg40 or read his regular blog here.

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